Admiring Davidson as an institution devoted to Presbyterianism, moral character, and academic primacy, Joseph Ruggles Wilson deemed Davidson a perfect fit for his son Woodrow, stating, “surely if Davidson be not worthy of public favor, then no college is” (Rives). Woodrow Wilson came to Davidson as a freshman in 1873, but would stay for only one year before he became ill, took a year off from college, and afterwards enrolled at Princeton University. Despite his brief tenure, Wilson spoke affectionately of his alma mater while President, and to this day he remains Davidson’s most famous alum.
Numerous legends cloud Wilson’s time as a student at Davidson. Through the years, it has been rumored that Davidson expelled Wilson, that he failed classes, consistently used profanity, and was a loner who showed no interest in sports or social activities. Official college records refute the notion that Wilson failed classes, and actually prove quite the opposite – that Wilson was an exemplary student.In his first semester, Wilson earned a 95 in Logic and Rhetoric, an 87 in Greek, a 74 in Mathematics, a 96 in Composition, and a 92 in Declamation. His second semester showed improvement: a 97 in English, an 88 in Greek, a 94 in Latin, an 88 in Mathematices, a 95 in Composition, and a 92 in Declamation. Although not necessarily a star athlete at Davidson, members of his class tell of his active, oftentimes heroic, participation on the athletic field. He was known to enjoy long walks by himself in the nearby countryside, but the portrayal of Wilson as an antisocial bookworm is far from true.
Perhaps his most lasting legacy from his single year at Davidson was his involvement in the Eumenean Literary Society. Considering his freshman status, his participation and accomplishments in the society are remarkable. As a member of the stove committee, Wilson bore responsibility for supplying wood to Eumenean Hall – one of the laborious tasks typical of Davidson life in the late nineteenth century that Mrs. Wilson later claimed “did him good” (Jeffries).He also actively involved himself in the society’s primary activity: debate. Records indicate that he argued on the negative side of the resolution, “Republicanism is a better form of government than a limited monarchy” and fought affirmatively for the resolution, “That our government should force our children to attend free schools.” Wilson was certainly a prominent member of the Eumenean Society during his brief time at Davidson, but he did not avoid the strict rules governing the group: he was once fined ten cents for sitting on the rostrum and twenty cents for improper conduct in the Eumenean Society hall.
Despite Wilson’s abbreviated time at Davidson as a student, he held fond memories of his year spent in “splendid isolation,” and Davidson still treasures its association with one of the nation’s most consequential presidents. In 1913, a group of 80 Davidson students traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in Wilson’s inaugural parade, during which they proudly carried a Davidson banner.And Wilson never forgot his association with his alma mater – he came to campus during a visit to nearby Charlotte in May of 1916 during which he visited his room in Old Chambers and graced the balcony of Eumenean Hall. A note he sent to his Secretary of the Navy, who was to deliver the commencement address at Davidson in 1914, exemplified Wilson’s fondness for Davidson: “Will you be kind enough to convey my cordial greetings and to say with how sincere an interest and affection I remember the college and wish it the best possible enlarging fortune.”
Author: David Wheeler
Date: October 2003
Cite as: Wheeler, David. “Woodrow Wilson” Davidson Encyclopedia October 2003 https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/college-archives-davidson-encyclopedia/page/wilson-woodrow